31 Days of Hell: Urban Legend (1998) - Reviewed

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
In the past, when I’ve pushed people to watch Urban Legend, either for the first time or a for a re-watch, my pitch has always been the same: 

  • Joshua Jackson with ‘Slim Shady’ bleach blonde hair 
  • Freddy Krueger as the American Folklore professor  
  • Chucky as the gas station attendant
  • Well-Manicured Man from The X Files as the Dean
  • Jared Leto BEFORE he was unbearable

Upon revisiting this movie for the first time in many years, I can safely say that the above points would remain on point, with some small asterisks that I’ll get into below. 

I have always considered Urban Legend to be the third in the trend of slasher movies in the late ‘90s. Scream set the tone and paved the way for horror films to follow in its footsteps, with I Know What You Did Last Summer coming out a year later, and then, finally, Urban Legend being released in the fall of 1998. Both Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer had the benefit of being written by horror movie aficionado Kevin Williamson, whereas Urban Legend came from then-unknown screenwriter Silvio Horta, who would later go on to create Jake 2.0 and Ugly Betty for the small screen.

 


Compared to Williamson’s respective scripts, Urban Legend gets (in my opinion) unfairly forgotten, relegated to the fringes of horror fandom. In fact, I think Scream (justifiably so) gets all the credit and even I Know What You Did Last Summer gets thought of as “second tier.” 

Side note: I Know What You Did Last Summer is a lot better than you or the masses remember, but more on that in a future installment of 31 Days of Hell. 

Urban Legend is worth remembering. It has a fun take on the slasher genre, with the killer going after college students by using famous urban legends to trap and kill them. It’s quite twisted and has a way of sticking in your mind long after the credits roll, so much so that the next time you’re entering your car, you may find yourself religiously checking your back seat for any would-be evildoers. 

 


 

The film is also directed by Jamie Blanks, who hasn’t made many movies since Urban Legend came out, but at the time developed somewhat of a small following in Australia after his short film, Silent Number, was released. He was in the running to direct I Know What You Did Last Summer and was so excited at the possibility that he cut together his own trailer for the film, using leftover film stock and Australian locales, crew and cast to put a compelling preview together. I Know What You Did Last Summer’s director, Jim Gillespie, had already been chosen, but the trailer was enough to get Blanks a job directing Urban Legend.

Blanks is a talented filmmaker, and his work on Urban Legend shows his ability to create suspense using clever camera angles and not overindulging in gore. His style lets the audience fill in the gaps – as in the opening scene when a woman is decapitated by an axe from the backseat of her car. We never see the actual moment, rather, we see just before and immediately after as the axe crashes through the driver’s side window. We know what has happened, but our mind populates that memory with more gore than is there. 

What Blanks excels at in imagery and technique, he lacks in controlling his actors’ performances, unfortunately. Granted, this was a young cast at the time, so it’s not entirely any one person’s fault. However, everyone feels like they’re acting at 11 when maybe a 7 or an 8 would do just fine. 

Michael Rosenbaum is a bit too over-the-top, relishing and overacting as the asshole in just about every scene; Alicia Witt is less than compelling as the lead in this story, coming across more spaced out and confused than anything else (and not because the story dictates it); and my man, Joshua Jackson, hasn’t quite found his acting chops yet. Yes, it especially pains me to write that last one. I DID say there’d be asterisks to the points listed at the beginning, right? 

Despite Blanks’ shortcomings in terms of molding the actors listed above, the rest of this cast exceeds expectations. Yes, Jared Leto IS more than bearable, doing an excellent job at keeping us guessing/questioning his motives from the beginning. Rebecca Gayheart ends up being the MVP of the entire movie, switching from being a supportive best friend to more than a little unhinged near the film’s climax. 

 


 

Then there are, of course, the horror/sci-fi icons that populate the film’s supporting players, including Robert Englund, Brad Dourif and John Neville. They help make the world believable, with Dourif taking an especially fun turn during the film’s opening scene. 

Neville seems to be doing a version of his Well-Manicured Man schtick as Dean Adams, as throughout the movie he tries to contain and/or deny the existence of any potential serial killer, as well as any notion that some sort of campus massacre may have happened in the ‘70s that could be tied to the recent killings. That’s not a complaint, by the way. If Well-Manicured Man wants to show up in a horror movie, more power to him, I say. 

Englund is also a lot of fun as Professor Wexler. There are many wrong moves one can take in making a horror movie, but casting Freddy Krueger as a professor who waxes poetic about babysitters receiving threatening calls from inside the house, or the “give it to Mikey, he’ll eat anything” kid, is not one of them. 

As with any fun horror movie, the actors and supporting players all need to be in place, but you also need a threatening look to the killer, which Urban Legend has in spades. We’ve seen Ghostface and Ben Willis as the angry fisherman donning a slicker and hook to prey on young teens, but here we get another menacing look: The killer wears a winter coat with fur lining around the hood – think the poster for The Thing -- wearing an all-black mask so that their face is completely concealed, and wielding an axe (most of the time). 

Alright, maybe my description makes it sound silly. I’ll own that. But the opening sequence, which features the image of the killer rising from the backseat as lightening flickers during a storm just before decapitating the film’s first victim, stuck with me for a long time after I initially saw Urban Legend. After another character is brutally murdered (without the gore being shown, once again) the killer looks down at Natalie (Witt) and menacingly waves to let her, and us know, that there’s nothing left of her friend. It sounds stupid, but that hand wave is also just creepy enough after we know what’s happened to this particular character that it gives me chills every time I think about it, even writing about it just now.

Urban Legend is by no means a perfect movie. Not even close. By the time the film reached theaters, the popularity of slasher movies seemed to be dwindling (slightly) as the sequels to Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were also being released. 

Other side note: Scream 2 is a damn masterpiece and better than Scream. Fight me. 

But Urban Legend deserves to be remembered in a more favorable light. It is a well-made horror film that takes the tropes explored in other slasher films at the time and tries to have fun with it. It may not be as meta or self-reflexive as Scream, but few things are. We can all agree that Scream changed horror films in the late ‘90s, but that doesn’t mean that a film like Urban Legend is bad by comparison. 

Urban Legend deserves your time and attention. Think about it: It’s not as if I’m asking you to mix Pop Rocks and Coke, right?

--Matt Giles